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Enrolled but 'not attending': Whither adivasi girls' education in Madhya Pradesh?

Subhadra with school-going girls
By Rahul Banerjee*
I set out four decades ago to try and improve the situation of Adivasis in the Western Madhya Pradesh region but unfortunately have mostly met with failure. However, nothing hurts more than the most recent in this series of failures because it is related to girls' education.
My wife Subhadra is a Dalit whose family had less than two hectares of unirrigated land from which they could hardly make ends meet. She had to study in a government school and also work at home on meagre food and almost no money. She somehow passed her higher secondary school examinations and then to escape her poverty joined an NGO as an anganwadi (creche) worker and later by dint of persistence became a land rights and gender activist. Later she decided to pursue higher education and is currently enrolled for a PhD.
This harrowing personal experience with regard to her school education made her think about the education of girl children from poor families. She felt that if girls from poor families are to study then they must be provided hostel facilities, because if they stay at home, then their parents tend to make them work and so they are not able to study.
Moreover, the government school system in Madhya Pradesh has now become moribund with close to zero teaching and learning. Therefore, without extra tuition it is not possible to educate girls just by sending them to a government school.
However, running hostels and schools for girls is not an easy matter. The Right to Education (RTE) Act has now made it mandatory for all schools to be registered and a considerable amount of paper work has to be done continuously regardless of the quality of the actual education being imparted.
Secondly, due to the grievous malpractices by NGOs running girls' hostels there is also a considerable amount of monitoring of such hostels. Moreover, running a full-fledged school and hostel requires good quality staff, which is almost impossible to get in rural areas these days.
Those few from rural areas who have somehow learnt something from the dysfunctional government school system and have attained some quality have invariably migrated to cities for better livelihoods. Therefore, those that remain in rural areas know next to nothing despite having become graduates.
So Subhadra decided two years back to informally run a hostel with about five or six girls of class six at the Pandutalab centre of Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti. The girls would be enrolled in the Government Middle School in the village and would reside at the centre and get coaching from Subhadra and I in addition to whatever they were taught at school.
Once the hostel stabilised other people also could come and spend a few days and teach them whatever they were good at. The idea was that the girls would get a holistic education as they would also work on sustainable farming at the centre and understand the forest, soil, water and energy conservation work being done there.
Initially, it was difficult to get these girls as both the girls and their parents were not ready. So in the first year we started a weekend coaching class at the centre for girls of all classes from Pandutalab and a few nearby villages so that they and their parents would get an idea of the huge difference in education quality that we were planning to provide.
There were quite a few girls who came to these coaching classes in the beginning where we taught them English and Mathematics the two main bug bears of school children in rural areas. However, after some time the interest of the students flagged despite their learning immensely in the classes.
Girl students
Investigations revealed that the problem was that they were being taught next to nothing in the schools and they were also not being given any time to study at home by their parents. Thus, while they would learn a lot in the coaching class on one weekend, they would forget everything by the next weekend and be back to square one. Also the girls did not see why they should work hard to understand a subject in the coaching class when nothing was being taught in the school.
This reinforced the logic that the girls would have to be kept in the hostel and taught intensively. But that is easier said than done given the fact that girls are made to do a lot of work at home even when they are studying in school and so keeping them in hostels is not generally favoured by parents.
Anyway, this year Subhadra began canvassing for girls to join the hostel from the month of April itself when the last year's session came to an end. She went around nearby villages convincing parents and talking to the girls who could be enrolled for the hostel. Once the girls were identified, she went and met the teachers of their schools to facilitate their transfer to the Government Middle School in Pandutalab.
The interaction with the teachers brought to light the sorry state of public primary education in Mahdya Pradesh in tribal areas. The primary schools are mostly single or double teacher schools teaching five grades all seated together. All the children of school going age are enrolled in these schools regardless of whether they are attending regularly or not. This is because there is a strict order from the higher ups that there should not be any child out of school.
Since there is a no detention policy, not only are these children marked present, they are also declared passed in the examinations. Moreover, since the funds and materials for the midday meal to be given to the children are according to the attendance in the school so also all are marked present regardless of whether they are taking the meals or not.
The Unified District Information System for Education, which is the online data base for the primary education system, thus, paints a very rosy picture of the status of primary education. There is of course an unofficial tally of the actual attendance and the number of dropout children with the teachers, but try as she might, Subhadra could not get this from them.
After much effort parents of about eight girls agreed to put their girls in the hostel at Pandutalab. They were told to get the transfer certificates from the old school so that they could be admitted to the school in Pandutalab. Two girls were even put in the hostel by their parents pending the formal transfer and we began teaching them. These girls, despite being in the sixth class, did not know the Hindi alphabet or the numbers let alone write in Hindi and do sums.
When the girls' parents went to try and get the transfer certificates, they came up against a barrage of questions from the teachers as to why they wanted to shift their girls to a private hostel and the government school in Pandutalab, and that such hostels are wholly unreliable and that they would be jeopardising the future of their girls.
One parent did manage to get the transfer certificate, but the Head Master of the Pandutalab Middle School refused to admit the girl giving him the same kind of warning that putting the girl in the private hostel would jeopardise her future. Basically no teacher wants to lose a student even if he himself is not teaching anything, because it reduces the number of students for the midday meal.
Also, instead of trying to improve pedagogy and learning achievements in his school he is wary of private schools and hostels which reflect on his incompetence and the shoddy state of the government school system.
This then created a difficult situation for us. The only two girls who had come to the hostel began crying, given lack of company. The increased pressure of proper studying also made them feel more home sick. The fact that the girls would not be enrolled in the school in Pandutalab also resulted in a situation wherein Subhadra and I would have to take on the full responsibility of teaching them.
Since these girls would in any case remain enrolled in their village schools formally this was not much of a problem in formal terms as they could go and give the examinations there. There was also the possibility of getting these girls to give the tenth class examinations from the National Institute of Open Schooling a few years down the line as this is the first formal educational certification these days after the RTE Act's no detention provision.
However, convincing the parents to follow this kind of informal arrangement became difficult as the criticism from the Government School teachers made them feel that their girls might get penalised in future. When both the parents and the girls are diffident to start with about studying seriously then this kind of discouragement from teachers makes matters worse.
Also, there is a general reluctance to send girls to study away from home because there are, now, a spate of cases where the girls elope with other boys, often of a different sub-tribe of the Bhils from the one to which they belong, even while studying or in effect not studying, in school. So there is a malevolent and dysfunctional public education system on the one hand and patriarchy on the other which are seriously putting girls education in jeopardy.
Consequently, we have had to send the two girls who had joined the hostel back and put this project in abeyance for the time being. We will try again next year with greater preparation as we now know what we are up against.

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